Canoeing with Damselflies
August 2, 2018
After our evening walk in July, Larry and I decided on another evening outing. This time we were going canoeing. We put in at Pritchard’s Landing (Goose Lake) around 6:30 pm. It was mostly sunny with only a few light, cumulus clouds. As always, we brought Hank, the black lab, with us. Larry was doubtful we’d see much – I guess it was just an excuse to spend some time together out on the water at pre-dusk rather than ‘researching’ for my book. It was great to get back in a canoe again after a three month absence, due to the very busy summer. Instantly, I felt my body relax even before we left the dock. Larry had a tiny cooler with some beer in it. “Want a beer?” he always asks even though I’ve never accepted – I prefer wine and cider over beer. My camera was around my neck and at the ready. Since there really wasn’t much to see, too early in the season yet for migrating waterfowl, too far out in open water for aquatic mammals, it was more relaxing than usual – I didn’t have to photograph something quickly before it disappeared. This was a good way to finish out a day. Larry paddled, with no breeze, and nothing to maneuver around, he didn’t need my help. My task was to photograph.
Every outing has something new to offer me – something that seems to be the draw of the trip. This evening it was damselflies. These miniature dragonflies, a relative of those fascinating hoverers, were everywhere and thick! I’ve never experienced anything like it before! It was incredible. They clung to our backs, hats, arms, legs. The vast lake stretched far out beyond us, its sheer size is quite humbling – reminding us humans just how small we are. Greenish yellow scum floated on the surface here and there, most likely a type of algae. If I looked just right, the water mirrored the sky. Far out across the water was a line of green vegetation, some of it lotus plants, the rest were most likely sedges – some quite tall. Far away, on either side of the ‘lake’ were bluffs cradling the valley. With the easy canoeing, the large field of aquatic plants drew near and near at a rapid pace.
Less than ten minutes out we were in the midst of a lotus patch with the wall of grass-like plants before us, they still filled me with awe. Their leaves are large and have a waxy coating. The lateness in the sun’s trek across the horizon added to the beauty and wonder of the plants, bathing them in a gentle glow. Only a handful were still in bloom – I had missed their big production this year. I enjoyed the very few blooms that were still intact. We passed by a swath of cattails, talking about our summer. Each time I spoke, I had to turn my head so Larry could hear me. Neither one of us felt the need to talk continuously so we enjoyed a lot of quiet – both lost in our thoughts, savoring being in a canoe. I continued to marvel at the damselflies, intrigued by their quantity and seemingly lack of fear. They tickled my arm while crawling up it. I accidentally squished one walking on my back, just reflex. I felt terrible when I brought my hand back, holding a severely injured damselfly. Their compound eyes are comically large. Their abdomen is incredibly long, perhaps five times longer than the rest of their body. Their translucent, silky wings extend out over their abdomen while they’re resting but fall short of the end of it. They perch on six legs, three on each side. They were all over the canoe. We went through another lotus patch. Then another area covered in algae growth. Past some lily pads to open, unobstructed water. Another large patch of lotuses at first seemed far away but we approached quite quickly. A lot of these were about done for the season beginning to brown and decay. Coontail grow thick beneath the water’s surface – some stretching just above it. Lots more green film on top of the water. Another isolated patch of cattails. We’d been heading southward, maybe a little to the southwest, Larry had turned the canoe eastward, toward the Wisconsin bluffs. I pulled off my hat to look at the half dozen damselflies hitching a ride on it. One spread out its wings, ready to take off, but then changed its mind. We continued east, past cattails and lotus plants, joined by who knows how many damselflies. Reveling in every moment of it, totally relaxed – well, I guess that’s not true, we’d been in the canoe for almost forty minutes now so my legs were starting to get cramped and uncomfortable. I stretched them out the best I could in the bow and pushed the discomfort from my mind, just thankful to be canoeing again. The sun had subtly begun to set, the golden hour was past by 7:20 pm, although it was still far from dark. It added to the peacefulness of the outing, renewing my spirit. The land east and north of us was completely filled with trees. Somewhere beyond those trees snaked the main channel of the Mississippi river. We went along a narrow path cut between the vegetation. I couldn’t identify all the plants, probably sedges and rushes, and cattails and arrowhead plants. Arrows pointed to the sky. I had missed their blooms too. We continued along the narrow passageway, greeted by blackbird song. There were lotus plants mingling with the others. Here, there were a few more flowers blooming. A section of pickerelweed displayed their purple flowers.
Just over an hour of canoeing and we were drawing near to the landing. I marveled at the green carpet, stretched across the water – did Larry say it was pollen? I watched the landing, drawing closer and closer. Sadly, our time on the water was drawing to an end. How quickly Larry spurred the canoe to cover the distance. We pulled up alongside the dock at about 7:45 pm. I put my camera away. Larry stepped up on to the dock and went to start the pickup and back it down to the landing. Hank hopped out, trotted across the dock and explored the shoreline. I lifted myself up and sat on the dock, feet in the canoe holding it in place and carefully brushing damselflies off of me and my camera bag. Once the truck was in place, we loaded the canoe, checked each other for tag-along damselflies, not wanting to take them with us, removing them too far away from water. Despite our best efforts, we did have a couple stow away in the truck. We tried to get them to leave out the window as we drove, but at least one stayed with us. Again, I was sad to leave – not knowing when I’d be able to get away from the farm again for another visit.
Spring Awakening (Part I)
April 28, 2018
We almost weren’t able to go canoeing today. Larry and I had planned we’d go in the afternoon but he called me in the morning saying it was too windy, we’d have to cancel – the wind was suppose to pick up considerably by afternoon. With crushed spirits, we decided to reschedule for another day. A little while later, Larry called again saying we should go out at eleven. I was thrilled to be going canoeing after all. Arriving at Larry’s before eleven; we were able to get to McCarthy Lake, unload the canoe and set out by 11:12 am. As usual we had Hank, the dog, with us.
The first sound I heard after stepping out of the truck, besides male red-winged blackbirds hoping to attract mates, was a sound I’ve never heard before, or can’t recall hearing before, a deep, low purring. Whatever creature was responsible for making the sound seemed to be all around us. I just about asked Larry what kind of bird was making the sound but decided not to just yet. We put the canoe in by the bridge; as always, I stepped in first, then with coaxing from Larry, it was Hank’s turn and then Larry stepped in. He handed a paddle to me, just in case, which I lay down beside me, and then he pushed us off and we were on our way.
Now underway, and before I could ask, Larry provided an explanation for the purring, “The temperature can be measured by the calling of leopard frogs. They only call at a certain temperature.” Male leopard frogs begin to call when water temperature gets above sixty eight degrees Fahrenheit; the air temperature wasn’t quite sixty degrees, perhaps the water was warmer or since they starting breeding in late April they were eager to get going.
“Really? Huh, that’s cool!” How thrilling that the omnipresent sound was leopard frogs! Though we couldn’t see them, it was reassuring and exciting to hear them; we knew they were there. Like their name sake, leopard frogs are spotted, dark splotches against a green background. Leopard frogs were once the most widespread frog species in North America. In Minnesota, their numbers have been steadily declining since 1960 – red leg disease, pollution, pesticides and loss of habitat have been the main culprits for the decline. Being migratory (moving from breeding ponds in the spring to overwintering ponds in the fall) their habitat is broken up by roads. This is also a contributing factor to their decline; I’ve found a few dead on roads.
I listened to the sounds more intently on this adventure – I heard a couple of swans in the distance, the splash of the paddle blade against the water, propelling us forward. McCarthy still had to dress; trees remained naked though some had buds and the cattails, rushes and sedges were golden straw strewn on the fringes of the water of the wide channel stretched out before us. The water level was high from snow melt; it had snowed heavily for three days two weekends ago (the 14th and 16th) and then again on Wednesday last week (the 19th). The cold weather hanging on so long that it had kept spring at bay a month longer, although waterfowl had returned in March. I noted a couple of kingbirds perched in a tree. They added their voices to the mix too. There was no break in the purring frogs and the song of red-winged blackbirds was nearly constant too. The canoe scraped against some vegetation.
“There’s a pair of green teals,” commented Larry.
“Yeah!” I had just noticed the pair tucked near a swath of vegetation that juts out into the water. They noticed us too and were quite quickly in the air, as we drew near. “Oops, there went a muskrat, I think.” An airplane droned overhead, the roar of it an interruption to the symphony of the marsh. We weren’t headed up McCarthy just yet, Larry was steering the canoe slightly eastward to an alcove, a small pond-like area almost cut off from the rest of McCarthy Lake by aquatic vegetation.
“Turtles,” said Larry. He has incredible eyesight; those turtles sunny themselves were barely a bump above the vegetation when he called my attention to them. A duck, perhaps a wood duck floated on the water, almost as far away as the turtles. Trees lined the sightline ahead of us; skirted by rushes, grasses, cattails and sedges. The biggest of the trees, possibly elm, had buds ready to open into leaves any day now. A dead tree sported a couple of woodpecker made holes.
A few seconds beyond Larry’s announcement of the presence of the turtles, “Oh yeah, I see them!” I was just able to make out their forms on a log, ahead and to the right of us – still far enough away I could just make them out looking through my 300mm lens. There were three of them, all painted turtles. Two rested flat against the log, one at the other’s back end. The third was perpendicular to the others, feet appearing to be on the shells of the other two, lifting itself up, Little Mermaid style. All of their noses were lifted high. Larry had turned the canoe towards them.
“They’re so cute!” I admired the turtles. The top one jumped in the water as soon as we began heading toward them and the front one followed suit quickly. The third one didn’t want to give up its sunny spot, lingering on the log a moment longer. I spoke for it after the other two slipped off, “It feels so nice in the sunshine; don’t make me go back in the water,” then as it slid into the water, “Ok,” with a resigned voice. It slid off just as we approached the log. The airplane roar grew a little less, no longer masking the purring of leopard frogs. The turtles disappeared in only a minute from sighting them. When it comes to seeing sunbathing turtles, you have to look fast to even catch a glimpse or be some distance away.
“Oh, beautiful!” In the turtles’ absence, I looked across the small alcove, an egret remained standing in the entangled, dead vegetation on the water’s edge. I was mesmerized, my eyes not straying as we approached, snapping photos one after another. At first the egret had its left side turned toward us, and then it turned around to face the trees on the bank. It shifted back and forth several times, paying attention to us but not yet threatened enough to move away. Then with a showy spread of its wings, it was suddenly in the air. What grace and beauty! Its white feathers were impossibly bright. It held its long neck in an “s”, and long legs dangled at first then stretched behind as it flew. The large bird should have looked gangly and awkward but instead was grace and poise. I was disappointed the egret was flying away, following it with my camera as it left. The disappointment didn’t last, however. The bird hadn’t gone far, just to the north end of the little pond area. Larry had skillfully turned the canoe to the left, also following the egret’s flight. So we were still close to it. Watching it stand in the rushes, turning its head to look at us, Larry observed, “It’s not acting quite right.”
“What do you suppose is wrong?” it turned and walked a couple of feet to its right.
“Doesn’t seem like a very…,” Larry paused to choose the right word, “thrifty egret.” We both watched the bird.
To be continued…
A Symphony of Birds (Part II)
After the next bend it wasn’t the waterfowl but a hawk that caught my interest. A large bird perched on a branch reaching out over and far above the water. Head turned to the side, keeping a watchful eye out. I couldn’t see its back, it stood facing me. It looked like the feathers of its wings were brown. The bird’s breast feathers were white, speckled with red brown, hooked beak, the beak of a raptor. It appeared to have a white streak above its eye. Toes gripping the branch were in shadow. With the sun behind it, the bird was backlit and hard to get a good look at, even harder to take a good photograph. (Looking at the photo later, Mom thought it could have been a Cooper’s hawk or sharp shinned hawk.) Unfortunately, Larry didn’t have time to get a good look at it to identify the raptor before it flew away.
Larry kept moving us forward, no halts but going at a slow easy pace. We came upon the beaver lodge built on the bank, on the right. To the untrained eye it would just look like a pile of long, narrow branches not a home. I don’t know if the beavers were currently living in this lodge but given the number of scent mounds on either side of the channel from just past the bridge and beyond this lodge, it is quite likely they are living in this one. I longed to see a beaver; I hoped that one would happen to be out on business and I would notice it. No such luck today; if there was a beaver outside of the lodge it was blending into the golden vegetation extremely well. Beyond the lodge was a narrow strip of lingering snow. Between us and the snow swam a pair of ring necks, alone, enjoying each other’s company and a patch of water to themselves – the channel, marshes and lakes in this area of the Weaver Dunes and Bottoms can get crowded. This pair of ducks seemed less concerned with our presence and didn’t immediately fly away. Despite their name, the ring around the neck is barely visible. To me, the most striking feature of this duck, which allows for identification, is the white vertical mark in front of its light gray sides – that is of the male. I have an easier time identifying the males than females and usually have a better time picking out their individual features. The back, tail, breast and head of the male are black which makes its light colored side so striking. The crown of the ring necked duck comes to a point but sometimes that is hard to determine too. The sun was so bright and low that other than she appeared light brown, I couldn’t distinguish any of the female’s features.
We passed a tree felled by a beaver and not yet hauled away. I think it has been there awhile, at least I think it is the same fallen tree I see every time we canoe down this channel. Why haven’t the beavers used it yet? What’s the purpose in dropping a tree if they aren’t going to use it right away? It was a good sized tree – it would be quite the project for a beaver to move. The channel curved abruptly flowing in a more easterly direction. The water in this spot disperses over a larger area, widening the channel. Snags and communities of rushes and cattails divide up the water, which is walled in by trees. Again we encountered more than a dozen ducks; with a flourish and fussing they took to the air before I could take a decent photograph. Larry advised, as he has many times, that I should set up a blind and get in position before dawn to be able to get great waterfowl photographs – perhaps a spring soon I’ll be able to do just that.
Larry kept the canoe gliding smoothly down the channel. There was a continuous flush of birds taking flight, startled by our presence; each flock a different size. Even when there wasn’t much to see, there was plenty to hear: the whirr of wings and complaints to the intrusion were fairly constant and even when these fell silent the medley of bird calls unaware or undisturbed by our presence continued. The distant wild call of the sandhills; one grew loud as a crane flew past and far above us, perhaps completely unaware of us. The trumpeting of the swans continued to grow louder. I marveled in the bird symphony – it was awe-inspiring, soul lifting and soothing! When my eyes weren’t busy trying to catch retreating ducks, they feasted on the still dormant trees towering far above us, soon they’d be sporting beautiful green summer wear. Several trees had tipped over, roots on full display – seemed like more than last year. An island of trees and rushes divides the channel, this is a landmark for me, and once we reach this point I know how far we have come. It always seems to be a brief pausing point for Larry to make a decision, though I’m not sure if that is true. Judging the depth and amount of uncluttered water, the number of half submerged snags, Larry steers the canoe to the left and around the island, on our right. Before skirting the island we startled another pair of mallards, each flying in opposite directions. Far ahead of us dozens of birds were flying but I’m not so sure it was because of us; I think we were too far away for us to be cause for alarm to those birds. We weren’t quite clear of the island when a number of mallards were disturbed by us and took flight. Aside from startling the birds, it was great to have front row tickets to the symphony – although perhaps symphony is a bit tame for the drama before us.
Suddenly the wall of trees becomes more like a fence, allowing for more of a view. The bluff cradling the Weaver Bottoms on the southwest came into sight. Fluffy clouds hung low to the horizon, none yet striving to block out the sun. Just a little further along and the tree numbers dwindled considerably with only a few individuals on our right. We had also finally come to the first beaver dam along the channel. Someone had damaged this one a couple years ago and the beavers had yet to repair it; perhaps they won’t since they built another one further down. There was plenty of space for Larry to guide the canoe through the gap. The trees on our left were still dense and far away, though the channel, where the current flowed and the area navigable by boat/canoe wasn’t particularly wide the water spread out here too, the bank of solid land had far retreated to our left. The water was mostly filled in with rushes, sedges, and cattails – however there was no walking over there. I’m not sure how much solid ground there is on our right the whole way down, probably enough for a tree to grow but not enough to walk on. We neared the spot on our right where a narrow channel diverts away to Goose Lake to the southwest. Larry turned the canoe into the narrow channel. Unfortunately, to get through we’d have to step out of the canoe and stand on mounds of vegetation and pull the canoe along. Although we’ve done it before and I was eager to do it this time, Larry decided we wouldn’t continue through. Here, Larry ceased paddling and paused giving us time to just soak it in (he seems to do this in every outing). The swans had become so much louder. On a pile of matted vegetation and mud was a bunch of feathers, someone had enjoyed a meal here. The aquatic plants around us were very tall.
“What are these tall plants?” I asked, desiring to know all I could about this place.
“Is it desirable?”
“There’s some non-native species that have hybridized with native ones.”
“What are some of these other plants?”
“River bulrush, with a triangular stem system. And possibly bluejoint.” I reached out and touched the aquatic plants, getting a feel for them.
A Symphony of Birds (Part I)
March 29, 2018
The winter passed away without me taking a walk on the sand dunes or on the frozen marsh. So Larry and I decided it was about time to go exploring again. It was just warm enough that we could canoe!
As we approached the bridge, Larry commented on the number of birds on McCarthy, lamenting, “There’s a lot of birds we’ll put in the air.” Larry had originally planned to go up McCarthy but decided we’d go down Schmoker’s channel instead. I think there were a couple of reasons Larry decided not to go up McCarthy; first it was filled with birds and he was loathe to put them in the air, second because McCarthy is more open and the breeze would have caught the canoe too much. There may have also been a concern with ice on McCarthy since at 28 degrees Fahrenheit the morning was a few degrees colder that what we had been expecting. We put the canoe in around 7:50 am.
The marsh was filled with the melody of migrating waterfowl, a dissonant symphony of many different songs. I was thrilled to just be a part of the phenomenon of the stopover of the migrating birds. It seems there is always something new for me each time Larry and I venture out. We have ventured out many times while the migrating waterfowl are stopping over, resting in the area before moving on; so I’ve heard the sound before but this time the melody of the migrating birds was my focus, held my attention and awe. The water was dirty from the ducks – I loved the smell.
The first birds to engage my attention was a pair of Canada geese swimming elegantly in the water on the left. We were just close enough to them to make them aware of our presence, making them edgy, watchful and vocal but not enough to frighten them away. Another pair was far less visible and almost unnoticed on a mound of vegetation and snags. They were both sitting. Could they be nesting already? Canada geese are some of the loudest birds I have encountered in the marshes. Sandhill cranes may rival them in loudness and yet seem not as noisy.
We were perhaps starting out a little too early, although it was the golden hour, everything bathed in the morning sun and beautiful but to photograph anything in the southeast the sun was perhaps too low yet – my photos were almost all washed out. Photography wasn’t the best anyway with the birds startling and taking to the air as we drew near.
Larry expertly and effortlessly guided the canoe down the tree lined channel. I tried to take it all in but there was so much to process. Sandhill cranes spoke somewhere off in the distance, out of sight, not nonstop like some of the other birds but frequent. Mallards quacked as they flew away. Honking and squawking of Canada geese was frequent. Larry identified pintails, ring necks, hooded mergansers, black ducks, and wood ducks – he’s skilled, able to distinguish between each bird’s song or call from the medley and able to tell each species apart as it flew off. He was also quick enough to have a glimpse of them before they took to flight. I struggled to keep up with it all, not seeing some birds until they were already flying and vanishing beyond view before I could really have a look at them. I heard the different bird calls, but my brain wasn’t able to isolate each one and pin it to species – I still have a long way to go learning bird calls and being able to distinguish between calls in a medley. And I may be even further away from being able to identify a bird in flight. Nevertheless, I still enjoyed the dozens of birds in each bend of the channel. There were always a couple of birds lingering on the water after the others took flight, waiting a little longer before deciding they should fly. From far off, I could hear the swans trumpeting, so very faint at first but louder the further we went. Birds weren’t the only subject to engage my eyes – the landscape around us caught my attention too. None of the trees on either side of us had really started to wake up from winter yet – only a few even had buds beginning to open. Another attention grabber was the size and number of beaver scent mounds. Since learning about beavers marking their territory with scent mounds and learning what they look like, I am eager and quick to spot them. Seeing so many large fresh scent mounds intrigued me. Alert, I scanned the water’s edge for any beaver that might happen to be out. We followed the bends and curves of the channel, to the great waterfowl medley. Larry had to do very little steering, none of the fallen and partially submerged snags lay in our course. The elegance and form of the snags never cease to dazzle and interest me.
We came upon another group of ducks, a dozen or so mallards. Green heads of the males glowing iridescent in the morning sun, emerald dots bobbing on the water. Males and females mixed, enjoying a morning swim until we drew too near and startled them. They protested the interruption as they flew. Again, not all the birds took flight at once. It’s a shame that even in the quiet, slow canoe we were putting birds in flight. We were sad that our presence disturbed them and yet at the same time it is in their interest to not be indifferent to people. I enjoy the bend and curve of the channel; at each new bend I wondered what I’ll see this time.
Canoeing in December (Part II)
Larry didn’t keep going down the channel like we did last year but turned right; about the same spot we had seen the mink swimming last year. A forest stood ahead across the water. I spotted an eagle’s nest in one of the trees. Larry steered the canoe slightly to our left, not turning but going at an angle instead of a straight line. We were headed for the tree studded hill. The hill had a red orange carpet. Far off to the left, a muskrat lodge was covered thickly with frost. This area of water was much wider, more like a lake and less of a channel. It was bound by a thin layer of ice. Larry pushed the canoe into the ice. It cracked with a loud noise as we pushed through, not a shatter like glass, no, this was more of a thud, a deeper, lower noise but loud – a low roll of thunder. There was a lot more ice to push through this time. The volume of the sound of the breaking ice was incredible. Any animals nearby were warned of our presence and certainly hid long before we would have been able to see them. Another few strokes and we were back in open water; still heading toward the hill.
Larry said, “Bunch of gizzard shads.”
I peered into the water but I was unable to see a single one of those small fishes. How could Larry see them?
Instead of turning right and following the small stream along the hill, further back, upstream, like we did last year, Larry turned the canoe left following the ridge and water down the channel. The stranded boat was ahead of us again. This time I could see a little more of it over the tall vegetation. I reveled in the beauty of the bare trees reflecting in the water as we continued on. The ice was to the left of us now but Larry skirted around it. On the bank ahead of us was an open spot of mud, from that distance I couldn’t tell if it was a beaver mound or a beaver slide or just a bare spot on the bank. Larry turned the canoe to the left again; we were back in the channel with the beaver lodge. Further along the bank, on our right, I observed a beaver slid. Far to the left, I could see the eagle’s nest. It was fun to see the back side of the sign marking the canoe trail and having a different look on the snag in the water near it. The beaver lodge and its large cache came into view. We had made a complete circle or rather more like a “D”. My eyes were briefly drawn to the perfect reflection of the cloudy sky and trees mirrored by the water. Again, with the hope of seeing a beaver, I studied the lodge as we drew nearer to it. And once again I marveled at the size of the cache as Larry guided the canoe around it.
We drew near to the willow tree and the tree with the eagle’s nest again. Larry commented, “There are a lot of gulls.”
“Where’d they come from?”
“Probably Lake Pepin. Attracted by the gizzard shads.”
Before we came to the willow tree or the eagle’s nest tree, Larry turned the canoe into a very narrow side channel, opposite from the willow. I was a little surprised, for the channel was just barely wider than the width of the canoe. Then again, it’s Larry, so not too surprising really. I marveled at the tiny spikes of hoar frost coating the frozen mud and grasses along the channel. There was some ice on the channel but it broke up easily and made far less noise. As Larry eased the canoe into the narrow channel, we heard a plop in the water ahead of us; an animal had dived into the water at our approach. “Most likely a muskrat,” Larry explained.
We were unable to go far into the small channel; it divided into two directions, too small of a space to turn the canoe one way or another. The channel was hardly longer than the length of the canoe. Resigning to not being able to go further Larry instructed, “Grab a hold of the left bank and step out.” It was a little hard to do all bundled up, but I managed to clumsily step out of the canoe. Larry told Hank he could get out, and then Larry stepped out and secured the canoe.
We walked along the even smaller channel on the left, heading southeast ward. Rushes, sedges, and grasses rustled as we waded through them. Soon we were among the trees. After a few paces, Larry would stop, bend over, brush away leaves, looking intently at I’m not sure what, I didn’t ask but he repeated it over and over again the entire time we were walking. I probably should have asked. I think he was looking for saplings. Other then curiously watching Larry, I took in the trees. A beautiful oak. One, perhaps a river birch, two trunks, one on the ground, carpeted heavily with moss. The other still attached to their base by threads, a few feet of it suspended in the air, the remainder of it resting on the ground. I turned around to look back the way we’d come, we were many yards south of the tree cradling the eagle’s nest. I find it a little comical that there is a bend in the tree trunk creating the illusion that the tree is straining to hold the large nest, bending with its weight. I turned back around and continued walking. Another dead tree caught my attention. This tree was split at the base; trunks spread out, like a creeping vine. A few trees had been gnawed on by a beaver, one appeared quite fresh, the other may have been years old. We looped about, making almost a circle. We came to a pool, channel of water; it was murky in color. Hank came up alongside me, down to the water’s edge. He drank heartily, thirsty from his running about. Larry said, “Apparently he’s not choosy about what he drinks.” We had walked along this spot last December. A few moments later we headed back toward the canoe. Back in the canoe, Larry backed us up and we continued on our way. Past the willow and the eagle nest tree, around the bend, past the little beaver lodge, soon we were back at the canoe landing.
Canoeing Through A Lotus Meadow (Part I)
July 29, 2017
Over two months had gone by since Larry and I had a chance to go canoeing – June is always so incredibly busy for both of us. So when a beautiful day with both of us free came around, we seized the opportunity. It was late afternoon, not quite 5:00 pm. Larry decided we’d canoe the Weaver Bottoms this time around. We put the canoe in, from the Weaver Landing, just before 5:00 pm. The sky was blue, dotted with white fluffy clouds.
If you haven’t figured this out yet, I have a love affair with water, lakes, rivers and streams in particular. So at the end of May, when Jesse and I were helping Larry build a fence, Larry asked me what I wanted to do this summer. I replied, “I want to go canoeing and swimming. I got a brand new swim suit two years ago and still haven’t worn it. We haven’t gone swimming for at least two years, maybe three. So I want to make sure I go swimming this year.” Now, I’ve never had swimming lessons, all just self taught. I’m slow but I absolutely love swimming. People have jokingly checked me for gills. Larry had asked how my summer was going – I told him it’s been so busy and I haven’t gone swimming yet. So when we made plans to go out in the canoe, I asked him if I should wear my swimsuit. He said sure – we’ll get you in the water, give you a chance to swim.
I was elated to be heading out in the canoe once more. The day wasn’t so hot that sitting in the sun was extremely uncomfortable but it was still warm – in fact it was the perfect temperature, with only the slightest breeze. The water near the boat landing was thick with vegetation on all sides, brilliantly green; cattails, rushes, sedges, sagittaria and yellow lotus. It feels magical floating through these aquatic plants. Larry guided us along the boat path going through the lush, aquatic meadow. There weren’t many lotus plants and only a few in bloom. The color and smooth texture of the lotus blossom brought to mind a bridal dress. We were canoeing in roughly the same place and general direction we had last July. The plants above the surface began to thin dramatically while I think those beneath the water had thickened; mostly a tangled morass of coonstail, barring any glimpse of the watery world beneath them. A little further on, the canoe slid through a field of water lily pads. The pads were storybook; I almost expected to see a frog sitting on one, pleading with me to take it in and feed it and offer a warm bed to it. No frogs in sight, even though there are leopard frogs living in the Weaver Bottoms. Frogs are awesome, so I would have loved to see even one. In a moment, we were out of the lilies.
We came upon the vast yellow lotus meadow. Although this was my second time seeing it, I still marveled at its breadth and beauty. Just breathtaking. I was expecting it to be fragrant too but I was disappointed. It wasn’t as strong smelling as I hoped – but that may have been due to my slightly stuffy sinuses. The white blossoms with a dash of gold dazzled in the afternoon sun, almost sparkling at a distance. Some of the large leaves floated on top of the water, others stood above the water by several inches. Plants grew so thickly only patches of water could be seen between the pads. As we glided along, Larry asked, “Is there a better way to spend a beautiful Saturday afternoon?”
“I don’t think so. This is so relaxing.” Other than napping, which I usually fail miserably at, I’m not sure there is a better way to relax after a stressful morning of working at a Farmers Market. Indeed, it was relaxing – out here on the water my soul could find rest.
The lotus forest began to peter out with individuals growing increasingly further away from each other. The stunningly blue sky with its fluffy clouds reflected off the more open areas of the water, giving it the appearance of being blue as well. Larry had ever so gently turned the canoe southward, taking us south and east. We didn’t chatter on but when we talked it was about the Bottoms and my book, about his family and my friends and family, and photography. We went through another lotus patch. This one didn’t grow so densely and had far less blossoms. Some of the leaves were beginning to curl and senesce. Then we were out in open water again – floating on the reflected sky.
We’d come rather close to a tree covered bluff that stuck out into the water to the south. Some houses sat among the trees at the base of the bluff, Highway 61 probably threads near them and the railroad too. Then a floodplain forest and a marsh filled with aquatic plants. I was too far away to see if there was an actual strip of sand or just sand suspended in the water. A lot of bleached snags stuck up like old bones. I could just make out seven Canada geese; there could have been more that I couldn’t see. Larry had pointed it out, explaining that all that slit and sediment is being discharged by the Whitewater River as it flows into the Weaver Bottoms. Scary how much sediment is carried by a relatively small river, although the Whitewater does flow quite quickly, though nowhere near the swift speed of the Zumbro. I’ve never been this far out and south on the Weaver Bottoms, and therefore have never seen where the Whitewater pours into it, I was enraptured by it.
Canoeing into the Fog (Part II)
Larry noticed another bird singing that interested him. “There’s a yellow headed black bird. Do you see it?” He steered the canoe closer to the sedges, trying to get close enough for me to photograph the bird. “They sound like an old pump handle that needs lubricating, creaky.” He then imitated the singing bird. I have never seen a yellow headed black bird before so it was fun to make a new acquaintance. He clung to the long stem of a sedge plant, hoping to a different stem when we got too close.
The fog over Goose Lake was the thickest yet. We came to the end of the channel and could see nothing – it was just gray nothingness. It felt like the edge of the world. I felt like I was Lucy on the Dawn Treader, voyaging to the world’s end with Caspian. Visibility in the direction of Goose Lake couldn’t have been more than five feet. Larry didn’t venture out into Goose Lake but rather turned the canoe to our left and guided it along the edge of the lake staying close to the vegetation. We continued along the sedges – the fog was quite as thick here as it was further out on the open water. The sedges were beautiful; I admired them as we past. Our route took us very close to a clump of sedges with shorter stalks and the stalks had little green balls on them. Stretched between the leaves/ blades of the sedges was a wisp of spider’s web. A red-wing black bird was perched on a mass of dead vegetation; puffed up to make himself look bigger, red spots appeared large, and he sang, trying to attract a mate. We headed toward the tree filled bank. The fog wasn’t nearly as dense along the bank. Leaves on the trees were so thick, you couldn’t see through the trees. Larry turned the canoe to our left heading into the slough between Schmoker’s channel and the “main” land. He pushed the canoe into the slough a little ways, but then paused.
“I was hoping there was more water in here. I’m not sure we want to chance it; don’t want to get too far up and run out of water. We’ve done that before.”
“Yeah, best not do that again.” Larry stood up in the canoe for a better look. “There’s just not enough water.” Larry turned the canoe around heading back toward the channel and up it. We glided through a yellow lily patch. I saw a kingbird perched on a tree no bigger than a stick. I could see a water mark on a tree trunk, easily six inches higher than the current water level. It still looked wet though, suggesting the water level had just gone down recently. Another tree next to it had been girdled all around it, above the water level by a beaver. We crossed over the beaver dam again. I noticed a small clump of trees had beaver marks too, some of them their tops missing entirely. We paused by the side channel to admire a sedge plant. I wondered what they were; Larry isn’t confident in identifying sedges. I admired flowering dogwood currently in bloom.
We continued up the foggy channel, observing the silver maple trees along the way, one had fallen into the channel but was still alive. We passed the larger beaver lodge that was partially concealed by young silver maples. We were drawing near to the bridge, though with the fog we couldn’t see it yet. We’d come to the small duck hunting cabins on the east bank. Larry stopped the canoe so I could take a picture of them. He thought they were cute and looked cool in the fog. We continued onward, past the willow leaning over the water, nearing the end of our canoe outing. The canoe slid under the bridge. Our canoeing for the day was done. Once we had the canoe loaded and were back in the truck, Larry said, “It’s only 7:45, I like canoeing this early.” Before turning on to the road, he asked, “Do you have time to go check out Halfmoon Landing?”
“Sure, I have time.”
We saw two cranes on the state land across from Schmoker’s as we drove along. We also observed many rabbits along the roadside, both along 84 and the West Newton road. We wound around on the West Newton road, passing the row of cabins/houses, prairie and then through the trees, down a slight hill. Before we’d come to the creek that usually runs under the road, Larry slowed the truck considerably because the road ahead was covered in several inches of water. He drove onward, into the water. This was a whole new experience for me and therefore a bit exciting. The water rolled away from the truck in waves. Where the stream normally ran under the road, the water was rushing over the road, its ferociousness creating foam. The stream was spilling over its banks filling the forest with water.
Larry said, “The water was much higher. Last night, I saw a beaver lining up willow branches along the side of the road, taking advantage of the high water.” I leaned out of the window taking pictures of the flood waters. I could see lines on the trees where the water had been, again at least six inches above current water level. It was incredible seeing the flood. The road must have been a little higher just before the driveway into Halfmoon Landing, there was a spot that wasn’t covered in water. Larry pulled into Halfmoon Landing, dropping me off to take pictures while he continued to the parking lot. I was thankful to be wearing boots when I stepped into the water. He came back to pick me up a few moments later. As we drove back up the road, Larry pointed out the willow branches on the side of the road. He paused so I could take a look at them. It was amazing how the beaver had lined them up in a row, laying them straight. I wish I had been there to see the beaver collecting the branches. With that we headed for home.
Canoeing into the Fog (Part I)
May 25, 2017
Despite the patchy fog this morning, Larry and I decided to take the canoe out, thinking the fog should burn off quickly in the morning sunshine. It seemed to be our only chance to get out around rain and wind – we’d had seven inches of rain in one day a week or so ago, plus a few other days with rain. The temperature was forty three degrees when we set out. I wanted to get an early start so we put in at McCarthy at 6:20 am. When we were driving to the canoe landing, just before the bridge, we saw two pairs of Canada geese with goslings. Larry said, “They [goose families] like to hangout in mobs, it offers better protection.” The geese waddled off the road all too quickly. (It would have been fun to photograph them before they disappeared.) We saw two other pairs of geese with goslings on McCarthy.
The plants covering the landing were wet with dew. Tree swallows were busy under the bridge, flying out over the water and back again. Of course they weren’t going silently about their business, but were all chattering away. It’s amazing how much greener everything got in only twenty days. Trees had put on all their green summer finery. The new growth of cattails, sedges and rushes had totally overcome last year’s detritus. Although everything was green, there were several shades of green giving some variety. The fog was not very thick, allowing for good visibility, from the landing, I could see trees far beyond the island, further up McCarthy than we’ve ever canoed. The yellow water lilies were beginning to blossom. The water level was quite high thanks to all the rain we’ve had – much higher than last time. The wild plants had grown considerably, but they were still young and not yet sticking up above the water surface. Larry kept saying, “Turtle,” every time he spotted one. I saw a few, just noses above the water that quickly disappeared as we neared. Sometimes I actually saw the entire turtle swimming under the water. The painted turtles were mating like crazy.
We didn’t go very far up McCarthy but turned aside to the small pond-like alcove (where we saw the beaver last year). Larry did all the paddling. The canoe sliced through frothy green algae that coated the water’s surface. He wanted to check out the pond area. He glided the canoe through the water to the far end of the pond and then looped back. Red -wing black birds perched on cattail stalks singing cheerfully, trying to attract mates. We left the pond alcove and headed back toward the bridge. Under the bridge, Larry paused the canoe so we could watch the tree swallows fly out of their nests – first a tiny yellow beak would peek out, then a white and gray flash as they came streaming out and darting away as fast as they could. I was in awe that two birds could fit in each of those tiny nests. We only lingered a moment before Larry glided the canoe forward again, down Schmoker’s channel. A thin mist lingered just above the water surface. The beauty of the channel was refreshing, relaxing, and a healing balm to the soul. The channel was deceptively deep with excellent water clarity. The channel curved ever so slightly to the left, east, and then widened considerably. I only noticed one very large scent mound where there had been several two months ago – the others were probably still there, just obscured by the lush vegetation. The mist hovering just above the water seemed to give way here. With the absence of the mist the water mirrored the trees – such spectacular beauty. This was more uplifting than church. Yellow water lilies dotted the water in this part of the channel. They were not beautiful in the traditional sense, yet still lovely.
We came to the snag which had been drilled by pileated woodpeckers. The channel took a sharp turn to the left. A few lovely snags that lay partly in the water caught my eye. Suddenly it was quite foggy; we had canoed into a cloud. Some dead, branchless trees stood like pillars, although not quite so straight. Each clump of these dead trees had at least one live tree, decked out in deliciously green leaves. I was elated to see the plants in and along the edge of the channel coming back to life, covering the area in green. We passed along colonies of cattails. The fog thickened as we headed down stream; I almost couldn’t recognize familiar landmarks until we were passing them by. We passed the island where the channel seems to split in two to go around. The fog grew so thick that nothing could be seen beyond a picket fence of trees in the channel. My head began to hurt from my eyes straining to see the landscape through the dense fog.
The channel seemed quieter, more subdued, cut off from the outside world. The fog completely isolated us, putting up a sound barrier between us, the channel, and everything beyond the channel. It was so peaceful, and therefore refreshing, despite our low visibility. A wall of trees on our left separated our channel from another section of water, which is more filled with vegetation. We passed a patch of tall sedges and a beaver lodge. The fog was a bit disorienting – still hard to tell exactly where we were. The beaver lodge must have been built recently because I haven’t seen a lodge there before. It’s a modest sized lodge. Shortly after passing the lodge, we came upon the beaver dam. If you didn’t know it was there you’d probably not have noticed it – with the fog and the high water, I barely noticed the dam. Larry said, “The water’s running so high it’s spilling over the beaver dam.” Larry was able to paddle the canoe right over the top of the dam. The only sound besides Hank’s whining was that of various birds. As we neared the end of the channel, Larry said, “There’s a yellow throated marsh wren. Do you hear it? It sounds like an old treadle sewing machine.” After he imitated the sound the wren was making I could distinguish it from the other bird song.
“Yes, I hear it.” We were unable to see the singer. We drew near to the big willow tree growing near the end of the channel.
Birds, Turtles and Canoeing
May 5, 2017
Finally, a beautiful morning without fog and both Larry and I were available for a canoe outing. Beginning of April would have been a better time to go canoeing to see all the migrating waterfowl, however, between the weather and busy schedules, Larry and I didn’t get out in April. There are still things to see in May. It was about 6:40 am when we pulled into the area by the bridge, the canoe landing; we decided to go up McCarthy from there.
We stepped out of the truck quietly, not yet letting Hank out or unloading the canoe. Swimming in the water only a little ways out was a beaver. Only its dark brown head stuck up above the water. Each time I see a beaver I count it as a precious gift. At first it was facing our direction – big nose, half way under the water; rounded bear-like ears just above the water; small, gentle eyes – aside from it being wet, it looked like something you could cuddle, like a teddy bear. It turned, giving us a side view. From the side it looked plainly like a beaver, with the better view, its head clearly looked like a rodent head rather than a bear – more elongated instead of round. I could see part of its back but the rest of it was just below the water surface. The water whorled around its body, clearly indicating where its body and tail were. It turned back toward us again, and then it noticed us. It didn’t consider us too much of a threat, so it didn’t slap the water with its tail but it quickly slipped under the water and didn’t resurface any where we could hear or see it. Once it disappeared, Larry let Hank out of the truck and we proceeded to unload the canoe.
The beauty of the lake was awe-inspiring. The sky was perfectly reflected in the water giving the water a deep, dark blue color at a glance. Trees were also beautifully mirrored in the water. As always, the relaxing power of being out on the water in the canoe could be immediately felt in the release of tension from my body.
“Can you get a picture of the young wild rice plants?” asked Larry. I did my best but I really need a CPL filter to sharpen the image. Larry was a little surprised how much the young plants had grown already. The vegetation along the edges of the water was greening up quickly. Trees were not yet completely decked out in summer leaves; the leaves were still small and developing. New cattails provided a dazzling green to the area. The lake channel was open water, the wild rice had not grown tall and thick enough yet to fill it in leaving just a small passage through it, as it would be later in the season. Larry glided the canoe up the “main” channel with ease. Geese bobbing on the water far to the left began honking, making all sorts of ruckus as we drew closer. I admired their graceful bodies as we passed. Some people think they’re irritating, I find them majestic. There was a pair of Canada geese and further away from them was a lone goose. The sun illuminated the large birds beautifully – still the golden hour. The bulrushes were growing thick and green too. Many trees on the bluffs still had to leaf out so the bluffs weren’t very colorful yet. We continued gliding gently up the channel. Across a strip of rushes, we spotted another pair of Canada geese; they were nesting on an old muskrat house. They talked amongst themselves but weren’t too bothered by us. High up in a tree ahead of us, on the right, perched an immature eagle. Its feathers gave it a mangy, scruffy look; its white feathers only just starting to come in. At first, I thought the pair of geese weren’t disturbed but then they took off northwestward when we drew a little closer. Once they flew off my attention returned to the young eagle. But it too thought we were getting too close. With a magnificent display of strength and agility it took to the air as well. Even in its scruffy juvenile stage it’s an incredible bird. It didn’t go too far away, it perched once again in the trees up ahead where the tree covered land juts into the water a little bit. Again, I was just amazed by the grand size of the marsh. I marveled in the loveliness of the trees springing to life, the new baby leaves shimmering brilliantly in the morning sun. Larry pointed out turtles here and there, hovering near the surface – I spotted a few turtle noses before they disappeared. We’d passed the islands and come into the big open area where the yellow water lilies, years past, have grown abundantly. The lilies were growing well too, but so far only a few leaves stuck up above the water. With the vegetation not so thick, the canoe sliced through the water with ease. I spotted another Canada goose standing on a muskrat lodge behind a wall of rushes and cattails.
As we went along through the lily patch, I looked down into the water. “A fish! I saw a fish! A big one!” I was just so thrilled to have actually seen a fish.
Larry identified the fish, “Northern pike”.
We neared the trees in which an eagle sat; I think it was a different eagle because it had a white head. As always, I delighted in the snags sticking out of the water. We saw a few muskrat houses but not as many as Larry would hope to see. The bluff closer to us was greener than I first thought. Across the marsh a little ways, I spied another bald eagle perched in a tree. Larry took us beyond the lily patch a ways before turning the canoe around to start making our way back.
Back in the lily patch, “Is that two turtles ahead to your left?” asked Larry. I scanned the water ahead, not seeing anything that could be a turtle or two. But then I saw it, with further guidance from Larry. They looked like a rock or stump at first.
“Yes, there are two turtles together, mating. Big turtles!”
“Blanding’s turtles,” Larry responded. He eased the canoe up alongside them. Unlike the other turtles we’d seen, these didn’t immediately disappear under the water as we neared. Larry put his paddle down and reached his hand into the water to grab the turtles.
“Sorry guys for interrupting you.” Larry apologized to the turtles as he pulled them out of the water and apart, holding one in each hand. I turned around to take a look at the turtles. He held them so they were facing me but angled their bodies downward encouraging them to stick their heads out. Their tell-tale yellow necks were clearly visible. Hank looked at them eagerly, hoping they were something for him. Larry scrutinized their shells. (Larry is a scientist, former employee of the DNR and knows how to properly handle turtles; please, do not pick turtles up or separate mating pairs. He only disturbed them to further teach me about the turtles to aid in my ability to write about them.)
“This one’s been marked. I think its Pappas.” He held it up, shell facing me. “Can you get a picture of the mark?”
“I think so.” I turned my camera and zoomed in on the shell.
“I need to tell him we saw it.” (This was another reason he disturbed the turtles – Pappas has been studying the turtles in this area.)After I took a few photos, Larry gently released the turtles into the water. Hank was disappointed they weren’t for him.
We continued across the lily patch but not heading the way we came. Instead we headed for the other channel on the other side of the cattails and rushes. Larry spotted a lone swan over there that piqued his interest. He eased the canoe closer and closer, pushing through the vegetation, seeing how close we could get to the swan before it had enough. “He’s getting a little agitated, “remarked Larry, continuing to move closer. “I’m going to get close enough to get him to fly so you can get a photo of him taking off.” He moved the canoe closer yet; I had my camera at the ready. The heavenly bird turned around, with wings flapping, running on the water, splashing, it glided into the air – gracefully transitioning from walking on water to gliding in the air. I took three photos of the process but unfortunately they’re all a bit out of focus. The white feathers of a swan are dazzling – like they’re glowing. Its head was stained orange red from pulling up vegetation from under the water. The swan was gone, but I think he landed again not too far up the lake. (Again, our intrusion was minimal; we didn’t completely chase the bird away and it was for educating purposes. Larry and I are very careful to not disturb the animals too much that they’re completely disrupted. We both have the utmost respect and love for these creatures.) A pair of eagles sat side by side in a tree some distance away from us.
Soon my attention was pulled to the vegetation under the water, curled water lily leaves, long stalks shooting up from them with a ball at the top that in a week or two would open into yellow blossoms. The shapes and patterns of the various plants form a wonderful mosaic beneath the water surface. Larry continued to glide the canoe along not having to paddle too much. Trees grew on narrow islands on either side of us. Larry said, “More of them have senesced. [Due to stress].” A little kingbird perched on a branch of one of the trees that may not be alive. It flitted away as we got close. We came to the spot where we’ve seen a muskrat a few times, we didn’t see any this time. I was a bit disappointed. The channel bent sharply to the left. We rounded the bend. The bridge was ahead of us. I’m always sad to return to the bridge. However, instead of landing right away, Larry carefully steered the canoe under the bridge. We didn’t go down Schmoker’s though. He turned the canoe around before we got to the willow leaning over the channel. We completed our canoe outing in an hour. I was thankful for the chance to get out in the canoe again but sad to leave the water.